Churches Engaging Race Issues: Not Perfect but Taking Strides
by Casey Lauren Johnson, Summer 2017 BETA Associate with Race & Christian Community
In March, 2017, Megan Lietz, Director of the new Race & Christian Community Initiative at EGC, released a call to action for White evangelicals to engage in issues of race. As we challenge White evangelicals to engage, we also want to celebrate those who are already doing so, and hold them up as an example for others. In this post we highlight the stories of three local congregations engaging in issues of race. We hope they will inspire you—and encourage you to action.
A Church Awakening to RACE ISSUES
River of Life Church, Boston, MA
There was a long, slow build of momentum as River of Life Church—a predominantly White congregation in Jamaica Plain—began to address the issue of not just racial diversity but racial equality.
It started with the voice of one individual, Ellen Bass, who had been involved with racial reconciliation for some time and wanted to see her congregation join in. Not everyone was on board, but there was enough support within the senior leadership to get some momentum going.
Their efforts began in earnest about two years ago with the formation of a Racial Equity Team. The team strategized about how best to address the issue of race within their congregation. They began with a four-week seminar series on issues of race for the entire congregation in place of worship services.
A few months later, River of Life followed up with a training for their leadership. This culminated more recently with a church retreat, where race was one of the topics addressed.
One of the biggest challenges they faced was that people were at different places on their racial awareness journeys. Some people had no idea that racial inequality was still an issue, while others were actively involved in racial justice efforts.
Emily and Rob Surratt, the leaders of the racial equity team, humbly admit they still have a lot to learn about racial reconciliation. While Rob had a deeper understanding of racial dynamics before taking leadership, Emily felt she didn’t know much, even as she volunteered to lead. In choosing to do so, she wasn’t confident in her own ability to engage issues of race, but was committed to learning more with the support of the community.
River of Life knows that starting this conversation does not mean they have “arrived.” They want to encourage people by acknowledging that we all have work to do. We can all start where we are and make progress one step at a time.
Though the church views itself at the beginning of a sometimes frustrating and difficult process, they have high hopes for the future. They are eager to see what the Lord will do by his grace.
A Church Responding to Increasing Diversity
Grace Chapel, Multisite in Greater Boston
Grace Chapel—a multi-ethnic, multi-campus church—began addressing its increasingly diverse congregation in 1995. They started with efforts which simply celebrated the diverse expressions of culture within the congregation through luncheons they called the Grace International Fellowship.
Over the course of years, their efforts grew to include ESOL classes, an International Student Ministry Team, and a Cultural and Urban Awareness Weekend. These ministries not only serve the diverse population within their midst, but also help the rest of the congregation learn from diverse perspectives among them.
From these efforts, a Multicultural Initiative was created. Goals include recruiting diverse leadership, facilitating healthy multicultural relationships, creating a visible multicultural environment, and a commitment to ongoing education in these areas.
Grace Chapel recognizes this process as a “marathon and not a sprint.” Creating and committing to these goals has been at times frustratingly slow, but ultimately rewarding.
Grace Chapel's progress on multicultural issues has continued through a consulting engagement with the Interaction Institute for Social Change. They helped the church not only diversify its leadership, but create systems where people of color and people of non-majority cultures have a space at the table where they can share their voice.
Dana Baker, the Pastor of Social Justice and Multicultural Ministry, celebrates the fact that Grace Chapel has now successfully planted a campus with no majority culture—a distinct accomplishment for churches who wish to reflect the diversity present in the Body of Christ within their congregations.
Joelinda Johnson, who grew up in the congregation and has served on staff at Grace Chapel, says the church became a completely different place during the years she was away at college from 2007-2012. She saw her church go from having a “pocket of diversity” to having people of color in several areas of leadership. She comments, however, while there are a larger number of people of color serving in lay leadership, there is still a ways to go in hiring staff staff of color.
Grace Chapel is glad for the work God has done and excited for what he will continue to do as they seek to serve the racially diverse communities of Greater Boston.
Churches Forming Friendships Across Racial Lines
North River Community Church, Pembroke, MA & People’s Baptist Church, Boston, MA
For pastors Rev. Dr. Wesley Roberts of People’s Baptist Church (a historically Black congregation) and Paul Atwater of North River Community Church (a predominantly White congregation), racial difference was a reality, but not a motivating factor for their relationship.
An informal connection between the two leaders, while serving on the Congress Committee for Vision New England in 2005, grew into a fruitful “Urban-Suburban Partnership.” They didn’t begin with racial reconciliation in mind—and yet they’ve developed the type of healthy, cross-racial partnership for which many people strive.
Rather than focusing on their differences, the pastors built their relationship on common ground. They connected over shared theology and values. They united in their shared goal to bring the gospel first to the city then to the ends of the earth.
In 2010, that goal began to be realized through their congregations teaming up to serve schools in Roxbury. This partnership allowed their congregants unique opportunities to serve the city of Boston while developing friendships across racial lines.
Both congregations have been able to develop a deep appreciation not only for the strengths, but also for the differences between their congregations. In fact, recognizing and addressing their different approaches to congregational leadership was an integral step in developing their partnership.
The pastors admit they didn’t know just what they were getting into when their partnership began. But they and their congregations have been mutually blessed. Rev. Dr. Roberts and Pastor Atwater hope to see more partnerships between urban and suburban churches, which they believe can happen when pastors simply get to know and appreciate one another.
For church leaders looking to develop relationships with leaders from other churches, Kelly Steinhaus of UniteBoston recommends choosing a leader from another church in the same geographical area as yours. You’ll have common ground (literally) as you reach across a dividing line or two and share your common love for Jesus and your city.
One of the most rewarding parts of their relationship has been the realization that friendships created between the two congregations will far outlast any formal partnership. These congregations serve as examples of God meeting people where they are and performing the work of reconciliation in hearts and minds.
Casey Johnson is pursuing a Master of Arts in Religion at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, and served as a summer 2017 EGC Intern with the Race and Christian Community Initiative. She first became interested in racial reconciliation efforts as a result of missions in Tijuana, Mexico, and service at an urban youth organization through the AmeriCorps. As a White evangelical, she wants to use the unique cross-racial opportunities and relationships she has experienced to help others engage issues of race in meaningful ways.